10/23/2015 1:03PM

Hovdey: Making mind bets on Beholder vs. Zenyatta

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Barbara D. Livingston
Zenyatta wins the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic.

As long as we’re indulging in rampant fantasies – Cubs in the World Series; Trump in the White House – why not let the imagination run riot as Breeders’ Cup week at Keeneland begins? Why not wonder aloud what might have happened had the two finest mares of the young 21st century met at the top of the Breeders’ Cup mountain in the fullness of their 5-year-old form?

On Oct. 31, Beholder will try to do what only Zenyatta has done before. She will try to beat the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, a stunt so daring it has been tried only six times in 30-plus years.

With a sample so small, it is hard to draw firm conclusions, but it’s fun to mix and match. Would the Europeans Triptych (sixth in 1986) and Jolypha (third in 1992) have been better served running in the Breeders’ Cup Turf rather than the Classic? How about putting Azeri in the 2002 Classic against Volponi instead of the 2004 version against Ghostzapper, Roses in May, and Pleasantly Perfect? You probably could run the 2011 Classic another dozen times, and Havre de Grace still would finish fourth. But who, besides those who backed Blame, wouldn’t want just one measly do-over of Zenyatta’s heartbreak from 2010?

Informed speculation can be enlightening, as opposed to the kind of idle noise dished out from most armchairs. In that spirit, the issue was put to the two principals who should have the best take on the mischievous question: Who wins – Beholder or Zenyatta?

It should be no surprise these are the guys. Between them, Mike Smith and Gary Stevens have been the regular jockeys for six Hall of Fame mares – Sky Beauty, Inside Information, Azeri, Silverbulletday, Winning Colors, and Serena’s Song – with Zenyatta and Beholder waiting in the wings.

Smith, 50, rode Zenyatta in all but the first three of her 20 races, while Stevens, 52, has been aboard Beholder in 10 of her 11 starts since September 2013. Smith subbed for Stevens aboard Beholder to win the 2014 Zenyatta Stakes when Stevens was recovering from knee-replacement surgery. The closest Stevens ever got to Zenyatta was as a racing broadcaster and passionate fan, and he remembers the emotional impact of Zenyatta’s victory in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“One of my greatest racing moments was watching Zenyatta win the Classic at Santa Anita, standing on the Turf Club mezzanine with my son T.C.,” Stevens said.

In fall 2009, the rider was in the midst of a seven-year break from competition, working primarily as an analyst for HRTV.

“I never heard a noise like that in my life,” Stevens said. “I was embarrassed because I had tears running down my cheeks, then I looked at T.C., and he had tears running down his cheeks, and everyone around us had tears running down their cheeks. Everybody was crying.”

Stevens pointed out that Smith and Zenyatta dug themselves a hole at the start of every race.

“It was so phenomenal, her making it to her last race unbeaten with her style of running,” Stevens said. “There were some sensational rides from Mike, and there were a couple of times, had he not been brave enough to cut the corner, she might not have won.

“I think Mike had a lot more anxious moments going into a race like the Breeders’ Cup than I’ve had with Beholder. Of course, I’m excited, and you run the race through your head. But if I’m on a deep, deep closer like Zenyatta, I know I’m going to have to get lucky at some point, unless they’re so much the best that I can fan them six wide, which doesn’t happen in a Breeders’ Cup Classic. Believe it or not, Beholder’s style has made my job pretty simple.”

So Beholder beats Zenyatta, right? She could do what only the colt Blame was able to do when he narrowly beat Smith’s mare in the 2010 Classic? Stevens went coy.

“I don’t want to make that kind of comparison,” he said. “I’ll just say the one thing Beholder has going for her that Zenyatta didn’t is her tactical speed and the way she runs on turns. A move like Beholder made in the Pacific Classic – when I was sitting still by the way – sucks the air out of a lot of horses.”

Smith got the best of Beholder by a half-length in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks while riding the 38-1 Princess of Sylmar.

“I didn’t know if I was going to beat anybody, let alone Beholder, but she was probably more beatable that day when she kind of lost it,” Smith said, recalling how Beholder spooked in the post parade and dumped Garrett Gomez. “She could be very difficult and aggressive at times. Where she’s at now compared to then is two totally different horses. She’s smarter, bigger, stronger – just in a different place, on a different level.”

Having both ridden and beaten Beholder, Smith must have a suspicion as to how she would have fared against Zenyatta. The Pacific Classic proved Beholder has a move that can blow a race wide open.

“I always thought the only way Zenyatta would get beat someday would be if someone just opened up and ran unbelievable fractions and then just held on late,” Smith said. “But that’s a pretty suicidal decision to make.”

Then how about backing the pace to a crawl and sprinting home? Surely Zenyatta could not spot a mare like Beholder 10 lengths in the final three-eighths of a mile?

“Even a slow pace you would have thought would work against her, but it actually helped her, which is very unusual,” Smith said. “With her long stride, you weren’t going to outfinish her, no matter what. So if you waited for her, you’d let her be that much closer.”

With Zenyatta unavailable, safely retired to a paddock at nearby Lane’s End Farm, Smith will try to beat Beholder and the rest in the Classic with Effinex, winner of the Suburban Handicap.

“I’m happy to be a part of it,” Smith said. “I’ll just be sitting back there, hoping they all get it on with each other early. Maybe that will let me in with a chance. But if Beholder runs as well as she’s been running and if American Pharoah jumps up with his A-plus race, it should be amazing to see.”

Lamar More than 1 year ago
I'm glad they didn't run at the same time. Horses as good as these, especially mares of this caliber, are rare. These ladies are good for horse racing. If they had come up together, they would have detracted from one another - split the fans. As it is now, I can be an equal fan of both of them without going years to wait for another this great. Here's to hoping another great filly/mare makes an appearance in 2017 to keep our eyes (and hearts) on racing.
John Leach More than 1 year ago
Blame didn't beat Zenyatta. Mike Smith's use of the left handed whip at the top of the stretch beat Zenyatta.
Vince Piscitelli More than 1 year ago
Lol. Vince P
TRacingLifeMore More than 1 year ago
Blame beat Zenyatta.
Mooch ... More than 1 year ago
Mike rode her perfect, as far as his whip or how far back they were early it was a perfectly timed ride, they wasn't going to get past blame no matter what, no matter how far, no matter what kind of ride, it just wasn't going to happen.
Marcus Semona More than 1 year ago
Zenyatta wasn't getting past Blame even if they went around again. Blame loved Churchill and he loved a mile and a quarter.
Edward Nelson More than 1 year ago
I don't know what race you saw ,but if the race was 10 ft longer that day, Zenyatta was the winner.
Dahorsecapper More than 1 year ago
Jay great piece ! I have a question for you of another great filly from California that no one talks about enough and is kind of forgotten. That being Nashobas Key . She was brilliant and the general public never knew of her only the race trackers and some so cal racin die hards. Zenyatta was great but i truly believe she would have lost a few to Nashobas Key . What say you ?
sgvoak More than 1 year ago
great great point. now she was a turf horse but she was a beast so sad the accident with kicking the stall. that set back Carla gaines and warren Williams but I think they will get a good one to come along again soon.
Joel Firsching More than 1 year ago
Rachel scratched when she was going to face zenyatta. That registered as a loss for rachel. When zenyatta scratched when she was going to run against nashobis key, that is also a loss. Nashobi had a terrific streak. Love watching her kids.
Jim Rob More than 1 year ago
I love Zenyatta and Beholder, but let's not forget Rachel. I guess you were confining it to mares and not fillies, but my ears immediately pricked when I read "the two finest mares of the young 21st century. Personally, I think you would be right, even if fillies were included, but Rachel's three year old season was something very special. As for a race between these two Mares at five years old, like most races, pace would be a huge factor. I believe if there was Classic field with both of them in the mix and a pace deserving of such a great race, Zenyatta would beat Beholder more times than not. I don't know that to be true, but that is my opinion. I sure would have loved seeing it. Of course, I believe Zenyatta would have beaten blame at least 7 out of ten times given the same race could be run over and over at the exact moment in time that they were in for the first one (well, at least I know what I mean).
Jack Armstead More than 1 year ago
Blame's victory in 2010 BCC was "Horse for Course" and "perfect trip" for Gomez. Churchill Downs was Blame's home track.
Edward Nelson More than 1 year ago
Rachel was special for her 3yr old run. But she wasn't great at 4. Zenyatta and Beholder have been at the top for multiple years. Rachel's Kentucky oaks and Woodward wins were great. She couldn't hold a candle to these 2 horses in her 4yr old runs
Tony Murabito More than 1 year ago
How about those who bet the Kris S exacta (Blame - Zenyatta)?